Lighting Electric Forest

We asked one thing of lighting designer Jeff Ravitz: tell us a little bit about how to light up a stage at Electric Forest Music Festival.  Below is Ravitz’s response. Ravitz, who works with

Jeff Ravitz
– Jeff Ravitz

Is there anything specifically needed to design a lighting scheme for Electric Forest?  Does it require anything unique?  For that matter, is that universally true?

There is a universal process for any design project I do.  I need to assess the what, where and why issues:  What are the design requirements and parameters set forth by the client? What is the setup schedule? What is the style of the show?  And, of course, what is the budget? 

The “where” is all about the physical details of the space into which the design will go.  This also includes the logistics of getting the equipment to the space, and from the street into the site.  The answers to these questions will really guide my hand in many respects as to the final design because the coolest design in the world, even if the client will pay for it, won’t work if it won’t fit or can’t reasonably be gotten into the venue.

And the “why” refers to the finer details of nuance, taste and creative choices that flow from the “what” and “where” discussions.

These are the bullet points that I use as my workflow guide for any job, even if they are not in that order, and even if I’m so pressed for time that all three get jumbled up into one big flurry of decision-making.

The Electric Forest Festival project, for me, is about creating a lighting system that will work for a range of acts.  Instead of designing a lighting system that I will use to create a specific show myself, I know that the job requirement, here, is to provide the tools to a range of lighting designers and lighting directors that allow them to faithfully reproduce their show.  They will not be using their touring lighting rig, the one that was designed specifically for their show.  They will be adapting my rig to the needs of their show. 

So, I design a system that is “all things to all people,” in a sense.  From my concert touring and designing experience, I have a good sense of the assortment of equipment, effects and angles they will need to find common elements from their tour system and the one we have on the Sherwood Court stage.

Our stage is the number two stage at the festival.  We get a lot of big, popular acts but also smaller, “on the cusp” bands and performers, unlike the number one stage, called “The Ranch,” on which strictly big names are featured.  Also, our stage has many DJ acts, which have their own unique style to support, with, in some cases, only one person onstage–the DJ.  But those DJs have a huge sound and require a lot of production to create an environment to enhance that sound.

So, being the number two stage, we have a number two budget.  Not a bad budget, but like all budgets, it has a bottom line that must be respected.  And good equipment isn’t cheap, so we find ourselves hitting that limit sooner than we’d like to.  Therefore, I have to do a bit of a dance to mix the latest and greatest gear with more affordable but possibly older technology that doesn’t have the same bells and whistles of the newer stuff.

My first year designing the lighting system at this stage was 2016 and I made it my goal to keep it simple so it could be set up in the two and a half days we are given (with rain being inevitable) but also provide a mixture of lighting fixtures and exciting angles so that the incoming LDs would be able to reproduce their shows.  We send them diagrams, illustrations and actual control console files so they can prepare in advance.  They get only a few hours to come in the night before their show, starting at 1 or 2 in the morning, to use our console to program the cues for their performance.  So the more advance prep they can do, the better.  And the console technology allows for a lot of “off-line” programming on computer software that emulates the controls of our onsite console. Then, they plug their USB stick into our console, upload their pre-programmed show, and do final focusing and tweaks with the actual lighting system.

Electric Forest
– Electric Forest

In 2016, the festival producers, as well as the incoming acts, all liked our Sherwood Court system. So I was invited back for the 2017 season.  But, naturally, the festival producers wanted something that looked like an obvious change and upgrade from 2016’s system. They did open their wallets a bit more, which helped.  So, I set out to take the best of the 2016 system and tweak, bend, expand and enhance it to solve the same problems in the same way, but with a slightly different look.  Sometimes, “change for change’s sake” results in losing what worked just for the sake of doing something different. I was aware of that possibility and wanted to avoid that pitfall.  The net result was to change the shape of many of our lighting trusses – the portable and temporary “beams” we fly above the stage onto which we hang the lights.  A number of straight trusses became curved, based on the rental house’s inventory. I raided their shop for anything new (and affordable) and came up with a design that definitely looked cool but also did the job.  Sometimes, a design that looks exciting doesn’t have the ability to really serve the needs of the show but looks amazing hanging there in the air.  I wanted both a good look and usability, of course.

One budget factor that affected us had to do with truck space.  Even if we might have afforded a few more lights, if those lights pushed us into an additional truck, that cost would have been prohibitive.  So, that was a logistical factor that had to be calculated into the mix.  Also, again, even if we might have afforded some more equipment, you get to the point where it might take an additional crew person to set it up and maintain it.  So, there is a back-and-forth balancing act we do as designers that goes beyond the actual creative design.

We also have a maximum power allotment.  These lights need quite a lot of electricity and even though LED technology reduces the requirements, it’s still a lot and we found ourselves smack up against the limit.  I did have to cut back on equipment and make a few changes just to squeeze into the total power the festival made available.

Another “where” issue occurred in different spaces for which I contribute part of the lighting design.  The festival has a tent they call “The Hangar,” which has a variety of kiosks around the perimeter, a big bar in the middle, and a performance stage at one end of the tent.  The producers wanted the stage lighting enhanced from what they had been doing.  But the tent is a self-supporting structure and the locations to actually hang lights are limited.  Plus, in some of the positions that do allow for hanging lights, there are weight limitations.  And, again, that budget thing.  So, I had to do that same logistical dance to get what I thought would work versus what could actually be accomplished.

Electric Forest
– Electric Forest

All in all, the producers and the incoming bands were quite happy with the lighting system we provided.  When I say “we,” the team here is me as principal designer; the production supervisors for the rental vendors (Bandit Lites for Sherwood Court, Felix Lighting for The Hangar) who are very much a part of my process as they allow me to bounce ideas off them and then receive their feedback on what they have available for the money; and my console programmer, David Mollner, who eventually becomes the final interface point between the lighting system and the band lighting directors as he and they work out the specifics of running their shows on our console.

Festivals are a unique challenge because of the variety of acts that appear on each stage.  Every band wants to look unique, so they will often bring some floor lights to make their show more individual.  Some festivals allow for a band’s entire tour lighting rig to be installed.  We don’t provide for that at the Electric Forest Festival, but the really creative band LDs were able to use our system to make their show look as much like “their show” as possible, all for a one-hour set in the middle of a forest in Michigan.  Amazing.